By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

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Sonny Herr, a 20-year-old from Arcadia, California, was killed in action in South Vietnam on Sept. 16, 1968. He was hit by enemy rocket fire. Shrapnel tore through his body in 16 places.

Herr crawled to the nearest bunker, dragging a fallen comrade with him. Once inside, he said a prayer and slipped away.

After the battle, the bodies of soldiers who had been killed in action — including Herr — were placed on a helicopter to be taken to the morgue.

During the flight, the door gunner saw Herr’s body move. The pilot immediately changed course for the nearest military hospital.

Six days later, Herr awoke from a coma. He was covered in bandages and tubes and had lost 45 pounds.

“Every day after September 16, 1968, was borrowed time,” Herr said.

Doctors discovered that several pieces of shrapnel had lodged in Herr’s heart, one of which had damaged the mitral valve that allows blood to flow properly through the heart. He suffered from tremendous chest pain, and a procedure was performed to reduce the fluid and swelling in the sac enclosing his heart.

Herr was eventually sent to a hospital in California, where he was released after 16 months of hospitalization. The pain at that point was bearable and could mostly be controlled with aspirin.

“Having been on the brink of death showed me how fragile life is,” said Herr, who went on to receive a bachelor’s and master’s degree in education.

Sonny and Toni Herr

Sonny Herr with his wife, Toni.

Determined to make the most out of his second chance at life, he served as a chaplain with the police department in Chino and became an administrator at a private school, where he met his wife, Toni, an instructional coach.

Toni’s father had been a prisoner of war in Germany during World War II, so she was no stranger to the effects of war. Together, they raised two daughters, who also became educators.

Herr spoke about his experience and recovery at high schools and universities, hoping to motivate young people to believe in their ability to overcome adversity. “Lots of people who went to war don’t like to talk about it, but it always helped me to talk about it,” he said.

More than 45 years passed without any serious heart problems.

Then on Feb. 26 of this year, Herr woke up sweating and with severe chest pain. Toni called 911 and doctors at a hospital near his home in Eastvale found that he needed bypass surgery to restore blood flow to his heart.

The surgery was successful, and Herr emerged with a renewed commitment to his heart health. He’s now eating a plant-based diet and walks more than 2 miles a day.

For others who have lived through health challenges, Herr’s advice is to “realize that no matter what has happened, you’re still here. Look at the positive side and do what the doctors tell you.”

Do you know a “Stories From the Heart” we should tell? Send an email to stories@heart.org that’s as brief or as detailed as you’d like.

Photos courtesy of Sonny Herr